The second rising of the Taliban


Candid Corner

Establishing yet again that time is inconsequential

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”  –  Aristotle                                                                             

It pains me to go back over seventeen years when the war started to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. Well, they were ousted, but not quite!

And I am seeing them rise again, virtually perched on the cusp of taking control in the country from where they were toppled. The weirdest part is that this is being done by the very people who were then instrumental in terminating their rule.

As Laini Taylor once said, “from the ashes (…) we are arisen”.

The intervening period tells a story of deceit, lack of resolve, ill-planning, flawed partnerships, and pretty much else, the cumulative impact of which was an operation that was tailored to fail in its inception as, indeed, it has!

Taliban were the proponents of innumerable manifestations which attracted revulsion: terror, religiosity, clinical dispensability of human life, gross brutality, extreme intolerance, public hangings, crude and callous treatment of women and denial of rights. Their continuation in power was construed to be a slur on humanity, thus propelling a strong international outrage resulting in the formation of a multi-country force to get rid of them.

That has been virtually forgotten now. It is being speculated that they are not the same Taliban any longer. They have reformed. They have become more human and more tolerant. They now believe in rights. They can be dealt with. Instead of remaining the enemy, they can even be considered as partners in a newfound bonhomie.

The ones short on brains often tend to be high on bravado. Are we witnessing another occasion as proof of the same truism? Maybe, we are even creating a brand new one – that nothing really matters – the good, the bad, all this melting into insignificance when measured against what may be of strategic relevance to the powerful in the shifting sands of time. And when that passes, it may be back to initiating another trail of bloodletting.

At the conclusion of the last round of talks between the Taliban and the US in Doha, Zalmay Khalilzad has said that there is a draft agreement on the withdrawal of the US forces and the Taliban have assured that the Afghan soil will not be used for launching any terror attacks. Once these are finalised, it will pave the way for the holding of an intra-Afghan dialogue leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.

The censure went much further in making it plain that Khalilzad represented the Secretary of State and attacks on him were attacks on the Department which would hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process

So far, the Taliban have steadfastly refused to engage with the Kabul dispensation which they refer to as the “puppet government”. Instead, they have always insisted on talking to the real power, this being the US. I don’t understand why and by what rationale would they now agree to talk to the Kabul regime? Quite frankly, why should they because they have virtually secured even the most wishful of demands on their bucket list. They are getting all that they ever wanted to – and without engaging with Kabul.

Similar fears have also been expressed by the visiting Afghan National Security Advisor (NSA) in Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, who said that “the Taliban are in no mood to negotiate with the Afghan government and there is no reason for them to do so. They are gaining. Their sole aim in wanting to talk directly with the US is to give themselves legitimacy”.

The public spat between Mohib and the US regarding “President Trump’s administration conspiring to unseat elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and replace him with a colonial style government led by the American diplomat Khalilzad” reflects only the tip of the massive trust deficit that is now evident among the allies.

The accusation elicited a strong response from the US government. Mohib was summoned by the Under Secretary of Political Affairs at the State Department, David Hale, to reject the public comments attributed to him. The censure went much further in making it plain that Khalilzad represented the Secretary of State and attacks on him were attacks on the Department which would hinder the bilateral relationship and the peace process.

President Trump, when asked in a recent CBS interview whether he could trust the Taliban, had responded by questioning the US involvement in Afghanistan in the first place. He went on to say, “I think they are tired. I think everybody is tired. We have to get out of these endless wars and bring our folks back home”.

This is where it had all started a few months ago – an expression of the US desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. It has continued to reverberate in the subsequent US narrative which evidently became a weak link in the follow-up strategy at the negotiations table.

Where to from here? Are we headed towards an equitable peace in Afghanistan that would have a place for all ethnic groups as partners, or have the US negotiators been led up a blind alley which only has one crevice leading to a Taliban-controlled administration which could, eventually, transform into an exclusive Taliban government? In that event, will the other ethnic groups be assimilated in governing the restive country, or will they be ostracised to find refuge elsewhere like they did at the advent of the first Taliban government towards the end of the last century?

The Mohib outburst is not without its rationale. There are serious reservations regarding the way the peace negotiations have been conducted and the possible agreement these may lead to. Time is inconsequential in this matter. Taliban are in no hurry because they are gathering further strength with each passing day. This is the incumbent government’s concern also which has now found expression in public from none other than its NSA. He may have been warned of its negative fallout, but will that palliate the deeply sunk-in concerns regarding the handling of the dialogue so far, or will it further accentuate the reservations about the engagement process which is providing incremental legitimacy to the Taliban cause?

At the macro level, does this in any way signify a change of dynamics in the evolving of a new partnership in this part of the world – Taliban extending support to the US as their economic, even strategic partners? And where does Pakistan fit into this emerging paradigm?

I have written on the subject before under the titles “Supping with the devil”, “Offering it on a silver platter” and “End of conflict, or end of the way?” dealing with the manner the US has kept giving space to the Taliban so much so that they are now dictating the terms of the proposed agreement. In view of the grave suspicions expressed publicly by the Afghan NSA regarding Khalilzad nurturing political ambitions in his country of birth, the matter has become even murkier. Once the US is gone, one should also be fully cognisant of the depleting regional support to put up prolonged resistance to a Taliban surge.

Peace agreement it may be that the US and the Taliban are negotiating, but I am not quite sure whether it would actually bring peace to a war-ravaged country. It is hugely tragic but, with the passage of time, the prospect of peace seems to be receding further into the background, replaced with realpolitik expediencies. It is the second rising of the Taliban that we are now confronted with.